Alaska Audio Expedition

by Pat Leonard last modified 2007-09-21 08:57

Experience the beauty of Alaska via recordist Gerrit Vyn's travel log.


From Gerrit Vyn

July 23-29: Southwest of Teshekpuk

Last night was particularly beautiful on the tundra. I stayed up most of the night and enjoyed the beautiful light on this arctic prairie. The sun is now just touching the horizon at its lowest point in the night, casting a golden light over the land for many hours as the days get shorter—the subtleties of the landscape revealed in shadows. The calls and choruses of Yellow-billed, Pacific, and Red-throated loons periodically punctuated the stillness, arriving from lakes near and far. Occasionally a juvenile shorebird would burst from beneath my feet to join others quietly foraging on the muddy bottom of a drying pond.
Tundra at Midnight
The tundra at midnight. Photo by Gerrit Vyn

I had expected to find the region south of Teshekpuk Lake to be rather bland and lifeless in comparison to the more productive areas near the coast. Instead I found the southern part of the Teshekpuk Lake region to be as vibrant as any—and the landscape and wilderness qualities to be even more compelling.

Enchanting Horizon
Touching the horizon. Photo by Gerrit Vyn

I’m back in Deadhorse after several days of recording southwest of the lake. Though recording loons was again challenging, I was able to acquire some good material for the collection. I’ve still got many hours of remotely-recorded material to listen to on my long journey home. This afternoon I’ll board a plane and wrestle baggage for the last time. Tomorrow I’ll be back in New York.
Juvenile Semipalmated Sandpiper
A freshly plumaged juvenile Semipalmated Sandpiper fattening up for the long journey south. Photo by Gerrit Vyn

Thank you to the many people in Alaska and elsewhere who made this work possible— financially, logistically, or otherwise. And to those back at the Lab who have picked up duties in my absence.

Thanks to all who have followed our journey. It has been a pleasure sharing it with you.
Sabine's Gull
A Sabine's Gull in flight. Photo by Gerrit Vyn

July 20-22: Down time

Weather kept us holed up for large portions of the last few days. We were able to fly out to banding sites and survey the area from the air, but conditions were too poor to land for a period long enough to round up and band birds. I’m now back in Deadhorse while the amphibious plane we’ll be using for loon work gets its 100-hour inspection. We hope to travel to the southwest side of Teshekpuk Lake tomorrow to begin an aerial survey for Yellow-billed Loons and establish a field camp for the remainder of my time in Alaska.
Caribou from Above
Caribou. Photo by Gerrit Vyn

July 19: Big banding day

Clear skies in the morning allowed us to get into the field early and spend a long day and evening banding. We worked on three lakes in the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area and banded about 1,000 Brant.

Banding Day
Banding Brant in the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area. Photo by Gerrit Vyn
Flock of Brant
A flock of molting Brant. Photo by Gerrit Vyn

July 18: Teshekpuk Lake Special Area

I was picked up from Lonely today and joined United States Geological Survey and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists to band Brant in the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area. From the air, we were able to survey the huge concentrations of molting, flightless Brant and other geese that gather here each year. On the ground, we used three float planes and 10 people to round up and band about 300 birds.

Molting Brant
Molting Brant. Photo by Gerrit Vyn
Molting White-fronted Geese
Molting Greater White-fronted Geese. Photo by Gerrit Vyn

The Teshekpuk Lake area is a critical goose molting area of international importance. Upwards of 100,000 geese come here from as far away as the Canadian and Russian Arctic. Birds also come from within Alaska, including a large number from the Yukon Delta to the south. It has been protected as a “special area” of critical ecological importance within the National Petroleum Reserve since 1976. This designation meant that the wildlife, subsistence, and cultural values were to receive maximum protection under any future development scenario. Until recently, it was enough to protect this pristine place.

More information on efforts to protect this area can be found at and

Tundra Polygons
Tundra polygons, caused by the freezing of the earth and subsequent freezing and thawing of water in the cracks, are a common feature on the coastal plain. Photo by Gerrit Vyn
Beaufort Sea Coastline
The eroding coastline of the Beaufort Sea. Photo by Gerrit Vyn

July 17: Fog

The fog is back along with the wind. The three of us camping here watched the sky for most of the day hoping for a clearing, but conditions never improved enough for an aircraft to pick us up. We’ll see what happens tomorrow.

July 16: Lonely

It’s midnight and I’m sitting in my sleeping bag about 50 meters from a dead-calm Arctic Ocean. The sun is still shinning brightly above the horizon. I won’t see anything close to darkness again until I get back to Ithaca. It’s beautifully warm and still here, and the mosquitoes are barely a nuisance, allowing me to sleep out in the open. Around me are a collection of cold war relics—radar installations of various descriptions, and the empty buildings, fuel tanks, and other infrastructure that supported the military personnel who manned this lonely outpost until the late eighties.

Cold War Relics
Cold War relics. Photo by Gerrit Vyn

The tundra is quiet now. The brief breeding season has come to an end for most birds. Those that remain, male shorebirds with chicks, waterfowl with broods, and the occasional longspur tending to fledglings, are quiet and inconspicuous. Around Lonely, the three most conspicuous residents don’t really belong here at all. Common Ravens, Snow Buntings, and Peregrine Falcons have all found suitable nest sites among the buildings and installations here. Without these structures, the birds would have nowhere to nest on the flat, open, coastal plain. Common Ravens have become common and widespread around the oil fields, and that’s bad news for other birds. The pressure of an additional large predator on nests and chicks is something they could do without—just one of the many indirect impacts human activities are having on this ecosystem.

I arrived at Lonely today after waiting out a belt of coastal fog that prohibited small plane travel until midday. I spent most of the evening roaming the tundra nearby and made some good recordings of the calls of several species of shorebirds. One, Baird’s Sandpiper, was an especially good find and I was able to record it for some time as it tended to a small chick. Tomorrow we will begin banding geese.

Oil Field Installation
Oil field installation west of Deadhorse. Photo by Gerrit Vyn

Kuparuk Oil Installation
The Kuparuk oil field camp. Photo by Gerrit Vyn

July 15: Return to the tundra

I flew into Deadhorse (Prudhoe Bay) this morning. I’m waiting for the arrival of several biologists. Together we’ll take a small plane to Point Lonely on the Arctic coast. Arriving in Deadhorse is always a bit of a shock. The scale of industrial development here is a stark contrast to the 500 or more miles of wilderness one passes over en route from Fairbanks. This evening I’ll travel beyond the last oil installations into wilderness where further oil development is currently proposed. A retired military DEW line station will serve as a base camp for several of us as we join other biologists surveying and banding geese in the Teshekpuk Lake region of the National Petroleum Reserve. (Note: There are 58 Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line sites, built during the Cold War. They were supposed to warn of any invasion coming from the far north.)

During the past week I’ve been recording birds in the interior boreal forests near Fairbanks. For the most part, songbirds have stopped singing over the last 10 days or so. Most are busy feeding chicks and fledglings. Despite the relative quiet, I’ve had several productive sessions recording some non-passerine species needed for the collection, including Common Goldeneye, Bufflehead, Horned Grebe, and Bonaparte’s Gull. I also located and recorded a group of Northern Hawk Owl fledglings late one evening in a burned-over black spruce bog—our first focal recordings of the solicitation calls of this species.

The recordings came at a high price however, as I had my first miserable insect encounter of the expedition. In sandals and a T-shirt, I found myself quite unprepared for the thick clouds of mosquitoes and black flies while I was following the calls of the owls into the bog. There was nothing to do but let thousands of them bite. I tried to remain motionless for the hour or so that I recorded the owls. To make things worse, there were so many of them flying into the parabolic dish that I had to remove my shirt to cover the dish and prevent the pinging insect impacts from ruining the recordings. In the end, I came away with a great bird recording, a few recordings not fit for young ears, and quite a rash of bloody bites.

I’ll be away from email for four or five days and will post a report when I return from Lonely.
Horned Grebe
I found several pairs of Horned Grebes with chicks in quiet sloughs northeast of Fairbanks. Photo by Gerrit Vyn.

July 5-6: Mike heads home

Our main Alaska recording expedition came to an end this weekend. Mike and I spent the last two days packing, getting our records and files organized and duplicated, and decompressing from an intense five weeks of non-stop travel and field work. Mike departed on a midnight flight. Next week he’ll begin the task of archiving our recordings, making them available to the public at (many of our recordings from last year’s efforts in Alaska can be heard there now). He’ll also be entering our bird observations into eBird ( It’s great to have a place like eBird to enter and share observations. It is especially valuable in a place like Alaska, where the distribution of many bird species is still poorly known.

I’ll remain in Alaska for the next several weeks. Working from Fairbanks, I’ll continue recording some of the boreal birds we missed last year before heading north to work in the Teshekpuk Lake area of the National Petroleum Reserve. This area, under threat of oil development, is the most significant goose molting area in the circumpolar Arctic and an important area for many other bird and mammal species. I’ll join researchers studying Brant and Yellow-billed Loons.

I’ll be reporting less frequently over the next week or so but will pick it up again when I head north.

July 4: Kittiwakes, kittiwakes

Today we made a quick trip to an island just off Homer, hoping it would be an easily accessible spot to record Red-faced Cormorants. We found the birds and were able to put a microphone in a nest, but the overwhelming calls of thousands of Black-legged Kittiwakes made recording the cormorants impossible. We also landed here on the Fourth of July, a big day of fishing in the area, and boat noise was an additional problem. It was a big disappointment because this was the best spot to try for this species without going farther afield.

This afternoon we’ll drive up to Anchorage for a few days. We’ll pack, clean gear, and back up files, in preparation for Mike’s return to Ithaca.

July 3: Homer

We spent the day cleaning ourselves up, doing some computer work, and getting a bit of rest. In the evening, we had a great few hours of recording in bogs and chest-high willows in the hills east of town. We had great luck with a pair of Parasitic Jaegers, Least Sandpipers, Greater Yellowlegs, and Golden-crowned Sparrows. Tonight we’re sleeping on the beach along the Homer spit with a view of the looming, misty mountains and drooping glaciers across Kachemak Bay. Marbled Murrelets are calling from the water as I lie here typing in my sleeping bag.

July 2: Foggy shore

Our morning flight back to Soldotna was repeatedly delayed as the fog came and went, but never went for good. Instead, we hitched a boat ride in the afternoon and had a good cruise across Cook Inlet on calm seas. Scoters, kittiwakes, puffins, and Sooty Shearwaters passed us as we traveled. Back on land, we had a fantastic Mexican dinner and then drove an hour or so south to Homer where we camped on a back road for the night.

July 1: An island comes to life

Things felt different on Duck Island as soon as we awoke today. The island, no longer warm and sunny, was shrouded in fog. The sea was calm and glassy, with small waves lapping at the sandy shore beneath our camp. The birds were behaving differently as well. From our sleeping bags we could see them swarming in every direction in the gray skies above us. We also noticed something we hadn’t seen before. There were virtually no murres on the water. The signal had somehow been given. The time had come for the murres to come ashore.
Open-mike for Murres
Common Murres step up to the mike. Photo by Gerrit Vyn

When we reached the slope just below our recording site, the raucous calls of the colony told us that the murres were already on the ground there en masse. With Mike feeding me cable, I crawled slowly up to the birds under a sheet of camouflage cloth and placed our microphones. For the next two hours we recorded the cacophony of the murres staking their small claims in the shoulder-to-shoulder bustling mass of birds. No wind, no waves, and no eagles. Everything came together perfectly for recording.
Recording Murres
Recording the murres. Photo by Mike Andersen

The taking of the island by the murres seemed to have an effect on other birds as well. Thousands of puffins perched prominently on rocks, unlike previous days when they spent most of their time on the water or made quick forays onto land only to duck quickly into their burrows.
Parakeet Auklets Displaying
Displaying Parakeet Auklets. Photo by Gerrit Vyn

The Parakeet Auklets were in full display in staging areas along the rocky shores adjacent to their nesting crevices. They too were coming ashore, clambering up slippery rocks in the surf zone, dueling for the highest perch. When it came time to leave, as today was also our last day on the island, the scene was quite unlike the one we found when we arrived just a few days ago. We suddenly felt as if we were in the middle of a giant living organism.
Murre on the Rocks
A Common Murre feeling at home on the rocks above our camp. Photo by Gerrit Vyn

We were picked up by boat in the afternoon and taken back to the shores of Lake Clark National Park. Tomorrow morning we’ll fly back to Soldotna with fine recordings and vivid memories of today’s events.
Mt. Redoubt Volcano, Duck Island
A parting shot of 10,000-plus foot Mount Redoubt, an active volcano, and the inter-tidal zone of Duck Island. Photo by Gerrit Vyn

June 30: Beach time

Warm, sunny weather was with us again today. We’re both wishing the sunblock had made it into one of the bags we brought with us to the island. Bald Eagles are still drifting over our heads and tormenting the murres, but we did have some encouraging success today.

After a morning exploration, I returned to camp to learn that the microphone Mike placed in a pile of rocks last night produced some modest results, recording two puffins calling back and forth for several minutes. Unfortunately, the event occurred at high tide with waves crashing just 15 meters away. But it renewed our sprits to hear that the birds are occasionally vocalizing. My burrow produced no results. After a long night of listening, I heard only a gentle exhalation from time to time and little webbed feet shuffling in the rocks. We’ll try again tonight.

We also had two great experiences today with the murres. Around 2:00 in the afternoon it looked like the murres were again attempting to land. I climbed quickly up to our spot and reached the edge of the alders just after the first few birds had arrived on a bluff edge about 10 meters away. Over the course of several minutes, I quietly sat and recorded with a parabola as thousands of murres piled in to the site. They arrived on wings sounding like small choppers, and the flock expanded toward me, as if by cell division, in a matter of minutes. I sat unnoticed, with murres noisily shuffling and jousting in front of me at arm’s length. After about six minutes an eagle appeared on the scene, sending the birds into mass hysteria. It felt for a moment like a war zone, and I was left sitting in a cloud of dust and feathers after the hurried departure.

Later in the afternoon it looked like the murres would try again. Mike and I both got up to the spot quickly and, though the event never materialized as it had earlier, several birds did land. It quickly ended again though, and Mike and I peered through the vegetation as a Bald Eagle arrived and tried to extract a murre whose foot had become tangled among branches just a few meters away. The eagle’s glaring eyes and blood-covered beak are still vivid in my mind.

As I write this, a giant sunlit cloud of kittiwakes is swirling before a shadowed thousand-foot sheer cliff face on adjacent Chisik island where half a million of them breed. It looks like thousands of pieces of paper caught up in a giant, slowly rotating tornado. Earlier this evening, Mike watched as a peregrine took and consumed a kittiwake in less than ten minutes in the rocks beside our camp. Horned Puffins are lazily rafting just meters offshore in front of camp and farther offshore the murres are back on the water for the night.

June 29: Duck Island

Early this morning we woke to clear skies and readied the boat for departure. We launched from the beach at high tide and made our way several miles north to Duck Island, another piece of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. The island is small so at low tide we were able to clamber around the perimeter in twenty minutes or so. But it is difficult terrain. The vegetation in the higher reaches of the island is extremely difficult to climb through—dense thickets of stiff wind-blown alder with an understory of prickly salmonberry.

Huge Raft of Murres
I estimated this raft of Common Murres at 6,000 birds. Two additional large rafts were also present on the other side of the island. Photo by Gerrit Vyn

We spent most of the day becoming increasingly concerned about our chances for success in recording our two main targets during our short visit: Horned Puffin and Common Murre. Similar to our experience on Saint Lazaria, the murres are still in large noisy rafts on the water. Periodically, tens of thousands of them make their way into the air to swirl en masse above their favored nesting sites. Inevitably, a Bald Eagle will appear out of nowhere, sending all the airborne birds streaming back to the water. We only saw murres landing on the cliffs once today before an eagle turned them away. Though they tried several times, a few birds managed to perch for only a minute or two. We’re beginning to wonder just what it takes to get the murres onto the cliffs and out of the water. The good news here on Duck Island is that many of the murres nest in areas that are accessible. We’ve located a prime spot to record them when, and if, they decide to settle for good. In one spot murres actually nest within the alders on a flat-topped bluff.

The Horned Puffins are also behaving like those on Saint Lazaria. They are very quiet, actually silent to this point. Their nests are accessible though, and located all around our camp in crevices and piles of boulders. We located many silently incubating birds with a small amount of searching. Tonight we’ll put microphones near several burrows and lie beneath them on the beach in our sleeping bags, hoping for some vocal activity.

Duck Island
The small beach we slept on for several nights. Horned Puffins nest throughout the rocks and vegetated slope in this picture. Several dozen Black-legged Kittiwakes were incubating on nests on the rock spire. Photo by Gerrit Vyn

June 28: Surf and tides

Today we rose early and boarded a small plane for our flight across Cook Inlet. After forty minutes of flying we landed at low tide on a long, sandy beach in Lake Clark National Park. As we descended, we were excited to see several coastal grizzly bears grazing on sedges and digging for razor clams on the vast tidal flats where we touched down. It didn't take long for us to realize we are in a hot spot for bear activity. Our pilot had to wait several minutes before departing while another bear appeared from the beach grass, crossed the beach in front of us, and headed for the tidal flats.

Grizzly Bear!
A coastal grizzly bear combing the beach. Photo by Gerrit Vyn

Though there have been some recent high-profile bear incidents in this part of Alaska, the bears here are far less worrisome than those of the interior. In this food-rich coastal environment, bears must regularly interact and show toleration for one another. This toleration generally extends to humans as well in areas where the bears are protected. Though my heart was racing at being in such close proximity to the animal I most dread encountering on foot, the situation here seems peaceful and benign.

After the excitement of the bears, we were taken by ATV to a small lodge positioned at the edge of tidal sedge wetlands and deep forests of spruce. Our plans had called for us to depart immediately by boat for Duck Island, but heavy surf and unfavorable tides have delayed us. While waiting this evening, we've decided to canoe inland on a series of small lakes hoping to record a pair of Trumpeter Swans that may be nesting there. We’ll see if the surf and tides will allow us to depart in the morning.

Looking for Trumpeter Swans
Our impromptu paddle for Trumpeter Swans was thwarted by rain showers. Photo by Gerrit Vyn

June 26-27: On the road again

We've spent the last few days getting organized in Fairbanks, picking up some gear we left behind in Anchorage, and traveling to Soldotna, a community south of Anchorage on the Kenai Peninsula. From here we'll travel across Cook Inlet by seaplane and then head south by boat to a small island. There, we hope to have better luck recording Horned Puffins than we did with Tufted Puffins on Saint Lazaria. We should also have a much better shot at recording an unusual Common Murre colony. We'll be away from computers again and will check in when we return.

June 22-25: A great success

Recording Success!
A great success! Photo by Mike Andersen
Gray-headed Chickadee
Gray-headed Chickadee. Photo by Mike Andersen

The last four days have been fantastic. We located and made outstanding recordings of Gray-headed Chickadees in a remote and beautiful corner of the world. Calm morning hours were spent recording chickadees in dense willows. Afternoons were left for catching up on rest and hiking the terrain surrounding the Canning River. One early morning on the tundra, I was greeted by a lone black wolf. The whistled song of Upland Sandpipers lulled us to sleep at night. After another beautiful flight, we’re back in Fairbanks for the night. Tomorrow we’ll head south again by car.
Canning River Camp
One of our camps along the Canning River. Photo by Gerrit Vyn
Wildflowers and the Canning River
Tundra wildflowers and the Canning River. Photo by Gerrit Vyn
A Great View
Gerrit taking in the view from a Brooks Range peak. Photo by Mike Andersen

June 21: Sojourn north

Aerial View of the Tundra
Tundra ponds and spruce on the Yukon flats. Photo by Gerrit Vyn
Arctic Divide
Flying over the Arctic Divide. Photo by Gerrit Vyn

It’s hard to believe the world is a crowded place when you travel by air over most of Alaska. The vast uninhabited terrain one crosses to get from one place to another alters one’s perception of scale. A lifetime of potential explorations passes beneath you. Not long ago it took prospectors and trappers several difficult seasons of traveling by boat, sled, and on foot to reach the interior of the Brooks Range from Fairbanks. Today, Mike and I arrived there in just three hours by bush plane. We flew low and slow over seas of spruce, broad, braided river channels, and weaved through the foothills and peaks of the Brooks Range, crossing the Arctic Divide. North of the mountains we landed on bumpy tundra beside the Canning River. Here we’ll begin our search for a needle in a haystack, the rare Gray-headed Chickadee.
Canning River
Thawing aufeis on the Canning River. Photo by Gerrit Vyn
Our helioplane at the "air strip." Photo by Gerrit Vyn

June 20: Recharging

We're recharging ourselves and our countless batteries today in preparation for an evening flight to Anchorage. Tomorrow morning, we'll fly by commercial airline to Fairbanks and then head north via bush plane to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. There, we hope to fulfill a long-standing wish for the collection: to make recordings of North America's most difficult-to-locate breeding species, Gray-headed Chickadee. This species occurs across northern Eurasia and also in small numbers at the margin of taiga and treeless tundra in remote areas of northern Alaska and the Yukon. We'll arrive at a remote airstrip north of the Brooks Range, and with a knowledgeable guide, backpack in to search a few areas where the chickadees have historically occurred. We'll update the log when we return!

June 19: Leaving the island

We slept well into the day today and then packed for our boat trip to the mainland. Right on schedule, our captain arrived at 3:00 P.M., and we made the transition from land to sea. Before heading toward Sitka, we made a quick loop around the north end of the island to look at the murre colony from the sea. All week we had been watching the interplay between murres, eagles, and falcons from a distance.
Black Oystercatcher Chick
As we were loading our gear we found this Black Oystercatcher chick trying to conceal itself in the rocks. Photo by Gerrit Vyn

The murres are just beginning to venture from the ocean to stake out their spots on the crowded cliff face where they traditionally nest. Most of the day, they’ve been gathering in big slicks on the ocean beneath the cliffs, occasionally rising en masse to swarm in clockwise flight around the cliff face, and eventually settling there. Each time they settle, Bald Eagles soon appear, and the murres stream from the cliff and return to the relative safety of the water. Often, a pair of Peregrine Falcons jet in and give the eagles a chase of their own, driving them away from the cliffs. A seemingly endless cycle, though the murres’ fear will soon be bested by their impulse to breed, and they will settle on their favored cliff to nest.
Murres Streaming to the Sea
Common and Thick-billed murres streaming to sea from their nesting cliff. Photo by Gerrit Vyn
Murres Float on the Sea
Murres on the water. Photo by Gerrit Vyn

On the trip back to land we encountered dozens of humpback whales. It was like fish in a pond—everywhere we looked, a spout would erupt or a fluke would rise and then submerge as the whale dove. We were able to make a few recordings of one whale’s unusual wheezing blows as it interacted with a Steller’s sea lion. The sea lion was actually sliding over the whale’s head as it surfaced. The whale repeatedly rose head-first and trumpeted a sound unlike the sounds typically made when a whale breaths at the surface. It was an exciting few moments as we watched the interaction at close range. Again, we were also treated to sea otters, Ancient and Marbled murrelets, Rhinoceros Auklets, and the ubiquitous Bald Eagles on the journey back to Sitka.

After much-needed showers, we went out and had a great meal in town—fresh king salmon and some greens. We’re both fairly exhausted and looking forward to recharging a bit before heading back into the field. We’ll be backpacking in the Brooks Range the day after tomorrow.

June 15-18: A continuum of activity

Sleeping on Saint Lazaria Island is difficult. There is always something going on. Though the weather has not been completely cooperative for recording, and a few species have been inaccessible, there has been constant sound. We’ve had great success in capturing the acoustic essence of this place. We have also recorded our two most-wanted species: Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel and Pelagic Cormorant, which are both new for the Macaulay Library collection.

Nights have been filled with storm-petrels. Around 11:30 each night they arrive and around 2:30 each morning they depart. In between, the air is filled with raucous calls and erratic bat-like flight. The ground pulsates with the sounds of invisible courtship from shallow earthen burrows. Every square meter of vegetated island ground holds two to three burrows, each containing the nest of a pair of storm-petrels. At night, the long-lived adults arrive from feeding waters far off shore near the continental shelf. Here they court a mate, dig a burrow, exchange incubation duties, or feed young. During most of the year these birds rarely venture within sight of land. It is an odd experience to see a forest literally filled with them.
Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels Arrive at Night
Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels arriving at night. Photo by Gerrit Vyn

Mike and I recorded in different areas of the island on different nights, trying to locate spots where we could isolate concentrations of Leach’s Storm-Petrels and Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels. This was not an easy task with half-a-million birds present. It was especially difficult when you consider that we had to avoid stepping on burrows in our explorations, and headlamps could only be used sparingly because the light attracts the birds. When we tried to use them, the birds were flying at us from every direction often clinging to our clothes. We did find several great spots, though, and made some fantastic surround-sound recordings of each species as we lay in sleeping bags beneath the big old trees. I’ve found the sounds of the pelagic Leach’s Storm-Petrel to be oddly at home here on land. Somehow hearing their gremlin-like chuckling calls rising from the ground beneath giant old spruces seems completely appropriate.
Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel
The delicate, robin-sized Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel spends the majority of its life at sea. Photo by Gerrit Vyn

Our days have been spent traversing and climbing basalt searching for spots to record the other island inhabitants. Pelagic Cormorants have been accessible and vocal, building nests and courting on seaside ledges. Pigeon Guillemots and Black Oystercatchers have also been noisy, and during slack tides we’ve had good luck recording both species without the interference of crashing waves. Unfortunately, Tufted Puffins have not been vocal and, though we’ve had swirling masses of them flying within meters of us on cliff ledges, very few sounds have come from any of their burrows. They have been fantastic to watch though.
Pelagic Cormorant
A female Pelagic Cormorant waiting for her mate to return with nest material. Photo by Gerrit Vyn
Pigeon Guillemot
Pigeon Guillemots were extremely cooperative. Photo by Gerrit Vyn
Tufted Puffin
Tufted Puffins were quiet during our visit. It's likely the females were incubating in their burrows. Photo by Gerrit Vyn

Tonight, the sun is going down again and the storm-petrels will soon wake us with their raspy calls. We feel fortunate to have been here and glad that we were able to accomplish most of what we came here for. Tomorrow we’ll return to Sitka and try to catch up on some sleep and calories!
Glaucous-winged Gull Nest
The nest of a Glaucous-winged Gull. Photo by Gerrit Vyn
Basalt Cliffs
Basalt cliffs and the sea. Photo by Gerrit Vyn.

June 14 – Island arrival

This morning, after an exciting flight over rugged peaks, glaciers, and fiords, we arrived in the small coastal community of Sitka. Though we are still in Alaska politically, ecologically this part of the state is very much part of the Pacific Northwest. Forests of towering Sitka spruce cover all but the steepest slope, and the understory is carpeted with familiar plants found in coastal Washington or Oregon—salmonberry, sword fern, and false lily-of-the-valley. The climate is generally cool and damp, but today we had a great stretch of warm sun that was much appreciated after the cold winds of Barrow. The scenery is magnificent. Snow-capped mountains rise right out of the gentle sea.

We did some grocery shopping in town and then made our way to the docks where we located our boat and captain. After lugging our gear to the boat we departed for Saint Lazaria Island. The 45-minute trip to the island was memorable. We encountered dozens of Bald Eagles perched on prominent trees or small rock islands, sea otters bobbing in kelp beds, Steller’s sea lions, Ancient Murrelets, and Tufted Puffins. We also crossed paths with a group of three humpback whales taking long breaths at the surface before returning to the depths to feed on krill. At the island, we made it to shore with the help of a zodiac and several fish and wildlife biologists who are stationed there for the summer.
Humpback Whale
One of three humpback whales we encountered on our cruise to Saint Lazaria. On our return trip to the mainland, we saw several dozen. Photo by Gerrit Vyn
Arriving on St. Lazaria
Mike arriving on St. Lazaria with our gear and one of the island's biologists. Mount Edgecumbe, a dormant volcano, sits in the background. Photo by Gerrit Vyn

Saint Lazaria Island’s 65 acres are a biological (and geological) masterpiece. The island hosts more than half-a-million breeding seabirds each year—500,000 Leach’s and Fork-tailed storm-petrels, 2,000 Rhinoceros Auklets, 1,000 Tufted Puffins, 100 Pigeon Guillemots, 250 Pelagic Cormorants, 4,000 Common and Thick-billed murres, 50 Ancient Murrelets, and 75 Cassin’s Auklets. It also hosts many pairs of Black Oystercatchers, Bald Eagles, and a pair of Peregrine Falcons. The island is an ancient volcanic plug composed of jagged black basalt twisted into fins, grottos, and high bluffs. There are two forested portions on the island, connected by a low, rugged, inter-tidal area full of life—anemones, ochre sea stars, blood stars, chitons, mussels, sculpin, and crabs.
Southern St. Lazaria
The southern half of St. Lazaria Island. Photo by Gerrit Vyn

We timed our arrival on the island to coincide with the zenith of Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel breeding activity—our key recording target, along with Pelagic Cormorant. We’ve just set up our camp in a small cove and tonight we’ll make our way to the forest and wait for the nocturnal arrival of half-a-million storm-petrels.

June 13 – Travel

Mike and I made it to Anchorage with all our belongings today and will be flying to Sitka, in southeast Alaska, early tomorrow morning. From there we’ll be meeting up with a boat captain who will deliver us to Saint Lazaria Island, part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. We’ll be recording the zenith of Fork-tailed Storm Petrel nesting activity (several hundred thousand pairs strong) as well as Leach’s Storm Petrel, which also numbers in the hundreds of thousands. Other birds we hope to record on the small island include Tufted Puffin, Thick-billed and Common Murre, Pelagic Cormorant, and Rhinoceros Auklet.

We’ll be camping on the island for four or five days and will update the travel log when we return to the mainland.

June 12: A small success

With our time running out in Barrow, Mike and I had pretty much lost hope of collecting any useable audio here. We knew from the start of this expedition that we’d miss some of our target species due to unfavorable weather. It’s just hard to take when we’ve come so far to be here, the birds are here, and there’s no way to record them.

As a small consolation, we did have a period of slightly diminished winds this afternoon and located a White-rumped Sandpiper that was actually getting up in the air and singing from time to time. We made a few decent recordings of the bird as it sang in flight and on the ground. The recordings aren’t what we were hoping for, but they do represent the Macaulay Library collection’s first recordings from the breeding grounds for this species.

It was my first time hearing the song of White-rumped Sandpiper. Its insect-like notes and buzzes are as unique and interesting as all of the other Calidris sandpipers—a truly amazing group to watch and listen to on the breeding grounds. The male’s ground display was also a new one for me when it comes to sandpipers. It approached a female singing, with tail cocked, wings arced horizontally, and head lowered. It was very similar in appearance to the display of a Sharp-tailed Grouse.

Mike also did some birding in the cemetery in the middle of town today. There he found a couple birds that have overshot their breeding ranges by quite a bit—Varied Thrush and Olive-sided Flycatcher.

Tomorrow we fly to Anchorage—the following day to Sitka and Saint Lazaria Island.

June 11: White bear

At some point last night I thought I was in a dream. White bears were drifting in and out of sight as they walked through blowing ice fog over a frozen, crumpled sea. It wasn’t a dream, but the experience we had last night still seems clouded and impossible.
Polar Bear on Ice
The first of two large bears arriving on shore. This bear grappled with an even larger bear, and then submitted. Photo by Gerrit Vyn

With the wind still whipping and the skies clear and blue, we left Barrow to have a look at the point. The drive is short, only about 10 miles, but the point is visited by few since the last four miles can only be traversed with big tires or an ATV. As we approached the point and the pile of whale remains buried there, we saw a small (it seemed big then) polar bear in the distance. It saw us too and, upon sensing our approach, it departed for the safety of the ice. Mike and I were thrilled to have seen this animal, if even for a moment, but we decided to stay a while, hoping that it might return.
Bears in Ice Fog
Two bears appear from the ice fog. Photo by Gerrit Vyn

The bear had only moved a couple hundred meters out onto the ice. It was a white speck near the horizon, lying with its arms stretched before it and head resting on top. After a while it got up and started to return. It rambled toward us for a distance but suddenly it caught a scent, turned, and fled. That’s it, we thought, until we realized that it wasn’t us. It was two large polar bears approaching from behind us that had spooked it—one walking about 100 meters behind the other. These two bears were giants and soon sparred for dominance, one bear retreating while the other passed before us and took its turn at the whale pile.
Huge Polar Bear
A large bear we left at the pile of whale remains at night's end. Photo by Gerrit Vyn

With hearts racing, we sat there in awe and disbelief as bears slowly arrived and departed. At some point in the night, ice fog covered the scene and we watched the frozen sea as the shapes of bears materialized out of thin air and approached or vanished. At one point a Snowy Owl stood sentinel on a piece of driftwood. Toward morning migrating groups of King Eiders and a pair of Pacific Loons appeared and then disappeared over our heads in flight. And in the middle of it all, much to our surprise, a tiny Sanderling appeared, silently lurking beside a small pool at the edge of arctic ice.

June 10: More wind

Another day of high winds and a dismal forecast dampened our spirits a bit today. After scouting, Mike and I decided to take a break and visit with an Inupiat family that was preparing a bowhead whale taken in May. It was a good diversion, and though the muktuk was not top quality, it felt good to spend some time with the local people.
Preparing Muktuk
Preparing muktuk. Photo by Gerrit Vyn

The whale that was being prepared had been lost during the hunt and sank. It was recovered five days later after its bloated body floated to the surface. It was then buried on the beach and the families of the whaling crew have been bringing in pieces to cut up and store since then. The pieces of the whale that were being prepared today were from the fluke, which doesn’t contain a great deal of fat and is not very tender. I’m not sure Mike enjoyed his first taste of raw whale skin and blubber. I know I had a difficult time with my portion.
A Slice of Muktuk
Slicing muktuk with an ulu knife. The black outer layer is the whale's skin. Photo by Gerrit Vyn

Tonight we’re going to head out with a local man to Point Barrow, the northernmost point in the United States. Over the years, Sanderling has been reported as a sporadic breeder at the point and we’d like to know if any are present, if the wind should let up. The remains of whales are disposed of at the point and sometimes attract polar bears. Most sightings by tourists are of distant animals out on the ice by day. But it’s rumored that bears may come in at night when the chance of interacting with humans is minimized. We’ll be heading out around midnight.
Boat Used for Whale Hunts
A skin boat, or umiaq, is usually made from the skin of a bearded seal and is the traditional boat used in whale hunts. Photo by Gerrit Vyn.

June 9: Wind

Constant 25-30 M.P.H. east winds, with a wind-chill factor of about 10 degrees, made it impossible to do any recording today. We continued scouting the area, trying to pinpoint good locations for our target species, but most birds were hunkered down and inconspicuous. We were successful in locating our White-rumped Sandpipers in the same spot we found them yesterday. Hopefully, the wind will break soon and give us a chance to record them.
By far our most interesting bird of the day, a Ruff. This species breeds throughout northern Eurasia. It’s likely a few sporadically breed in Alaska as well—Mike and I saw several on the Colville River Delta last year. Photo by Gerrit Vyn

Wind is a constant factor when working on the arctic coast. The trick is to be ready when it breaks because it won't last long. Last year Mike and I were holed up in an Eskimo's plywood fishing cabin on the outer Colville River delta for four days due to high winds. Our only diversion was trying to subdue an arctic ground squirrel that chattered its alarm call beneath the cabin every time one of us rolled over in bed. Late one evening the cabin stopped whistling, the tundra gradually became still, and the birds erupted into song and display. We had a magical night during which we recorded almost everything we were there for. We're hoping we'll get a break like that here.
Pectoral Sandpiper
Male Pectoral Sandpipers were occasionally attempting display flights today but most were hunkered down in the tundra vegetation. Photo by Gerrit Vyn

June 8: The midnight sun

Late this evening we arrived in Barrow, the northernmost community in the United States. After a long day of plane delays and two lost bags it was nice to be on the ground again with a new mission. As we approached Barrow, the limitless expanse of tundra looked like it was still in a deep freeze with the sun reflecting off of thousands of icy tundra ponds and illuminating the snowlines still clinging to the nuances of the landscape. On the ground, we found it to be quite cold, but the constant sunshine has begun thawing the margins of water bodies and the birds have arrived.
Beaufort Sea at Midnight
Looking north over the thawing Beaufort Sea at midnight. Photo by Gerrit Vyn

We picked up our truck and did a quick route around the small road system here that penetrates the tundra in several directions. Shorebirds were energetically courting with their myriad displays and vocalizations. It’s always a wonder for me to see a bird as small as a 27-gram Semipalmated Sandpiper and to think about the long distance it has flown from central or South America to reach this frozen landscape to breed. Upon arrival they get little rest, flying and singing for hours on end to attract a mate (or mates!).

During our short survey we also had a great surprise. We located a bird that has occasionally bred in Barrow, but one we had little hope of finding—White-rumped Sandpiper. Like the Red Knots we found in Nome, this bird’s breeding vocalizations would be a great new addition to the Macaulay Library collection. Earlier this year, we discussed making a special trip to the Canadian high arctic to record this bird as well as Red Knot and Sanderling. It would be a great accomplishment to get two of the three here in Alaska. With global climate change rapidly affecting the high arctic, documenting these species is becoming increasingly urgent.
Husky at Home
An Eskimo's dog and snow machine. The snow machine is the Eskimo's standard mode of winter travel. Very few people run dogs these days. Photo by Gerrit Vyn

Snowy Owls, another target bird for this area, are also here in impressive numbers. We had an amazing 31 individuals in one five-mile stretch of road. The bad news is that they may not be breeding this year. We saw only one bird that was potentially on a nest and no courtship or vocal behavior. When we get out on the tundra tomorrow we’ll get a better idea of what we can accomplish with them.

Our last highlight of the evening was seeing all four eider species—King, Spectacled, Common and Steller’s. Recordings of all of these species are highly desirable but will be extremely difficult to obtain. I think Mike and I would both feel fortunate if we were able to record one of them.
Spectacled Eider
A male Spectacled Eider. Photo by Gerrit Vyn

We’ll get a good sleep tonight, though it’s now 3:00 A.M. and a Snow Bunting is loudly singing outside the window. Here’s hoping our additional bags (and recording gear), arrive sometime tomorrow.

June 7: Last day in Nome

Rain and wind dashed our hopes of doing any recording today. Instead we did some laundry, packed, and caught up on computer work—backing up files, emailing, and entering data. We also got together with Ben Clock and Larry Arbanas, just arrived in Nome to collect high-definition video footage for the Macaulay Library collection. We all got together for dinner and made an evening foray toward Safety Sound but were quickly turned back by the weather.

Tomorrow is a travel day. We’ll be heading for the far north via Anchorage in the morning.

Ben and Larry
Ben Clock (left) and Larry Arbanas looking for subjects along the coast of the Bering Sea. Photo by Gerrit Vyn

June 5-7: Around the clock

With only a few days ahead of us in Nome, Mike and I made a short list of the vocalizations we were still after and identified those that we felt were still obtainable. We decided to spend additional time working on Bristle-thighed Curlew to round out our coverage of its repertoire, to try for calls of Arctic Warbler, and to return to Pilgrim Hot Springs to work on ducks and passerines. We also decided that, despite our having found several active Gyrfalcon nests, our chance of recording vocalizations was poor. All of the nests we located were still being incubated and the adults were not vocal when we approached. They simply slipped off their nests and vanished. Given the cooler weather that had moved in, we felt it best to leave their nests undisturbed.

Recording Whimbrel
Mike Andersen recording Whimbrel. Photo by Gerrit Vyn

After a quick dinner in town we headed up the Kougarok Road to our Bristle-thighed Curlew site. With our gear in hand, we labored up over large mature tussocks to the ridgeline. There, we each wandered off in search of curlews. It was a beautiful, still evening. The sun hung low and illuminated the russet tundra beneath our feet. The curlews were less conspicuous than on our previous visit, but after some searching I came across a pair that boldly stood on high tussocks giving their whistled alarm calls. Groups of Long-tailed Jaegers drifted by from time to time and I had the good fortune to record a call that is commonly given during group interactions but one we had not yet had the luck to record at close range. Feeling satisfied with my evening’s work, I located Mike farther up the ridgeline making ambient recordings of Whimbrel song flights and American Golden Plover. From there, we sat and enjoyed the evening a bit, before moving on and descending back through the hideous tussocks.

Kuzitrin River
The Kuzitrin River at 2:00 A.M. Photo by Gerrit Vyn

For those who have never experienced tussocks it is hard to explain just how difficult they can be to traverse on foot. From a distance, the tundra looks like a velvety carpet made for easy foot travel. While this is the case in some places, in most it is another story. I’ve heard traveling over tussocks described as trying to walk over bowling balls placed on a cheap mattress. That is a fairly good description, though the bowling balls in a mature tussock field can be knee high with wet spongy troughs in between them. There is a good reason that, despite the cold, most overland exploration in Alaska takes place in winter, when the ground is covered by snow.

Pilgrim Hot Springs
The sloughs at Pilgrim Hot Springs. Photo by Gerrit Vyn

On wobbly legs we reached the truck and traveled to Pilgrim Hot Springs. We arrived around four in the morning just as the sun was threatening to peek above the horizon. There we had another productive session. We improved on our earlier recordings of Greater Scaup and recorded the different dialects of some of the more common songbirds like Northern Waterthrush, American Tree Sparrow, Fox Sparrow, and Yellow Warbler. We then traveled to Salmon Lake, most of which was still covered by a great sheet of ice, and made recordings of four different call types given by Arctic Warbler. These are our first recordings of this species’ calls from outside of their wintering grounds in Southeast Asia. While we recorded, the calls of Red-necked Grebes occasionally pierced the still air and an unpaired Wandering Tattler passed by from time to time, singing high overhead.

Wandering Beaver
A dispersing beaver found wandering the road, miles from the nearest water. Photo by Mike Andersen

With the weather still looking good and our time in Nome dwindling we pushed on and recorded throughout the remainder of the day and into the night. Highlights included spending some time with a herd of 400 caribou, finding two Arctic Loons at close range along the Bering Sea coastline, and seeing a very pale Gyrfalcon from a distance of about 15 meters. Around 2 A.M., about 32 hours after we departed Nome, we returned to our hotel as rain was moving in again. Though we still had several birds we hoped to record in the night, we both felt somewhat relieved that we had no other choice but to wait out the weather and go to sleep. And sleep we did.

Dancing with Caribou
Dances with caribou. Photo by Mike Andersen

June 4-5: The Kougarok Road

We woke yesterday at midday and found that Nome was socked in by low clouds and a light misty rain. We debated our options and decided to get away from the coast and try our luck on the Kougarok Road. Inland, though the clouds persisted and an occasional drizzle interrupted our recording, we found pretty calm conditions and worked again through the night.
Arctic Tern Nest
Arctic Tern nest. Photo by Gerrit Vyn

The first birds we recorded were a pair of Arctic Terns that had laid their two eggs in the middle of a landing strip. Arctic Terns don’t build much of a nest. They may scrape out a shallow depression, but in many cases it looks like they have just laid their eggs on a bare patch of ground. They are also vigorous nest defenders, vocalizing loudly and often pecking at intruders. On one occasion last year I didn’t know I was near a nest until I heard a loud shrill scream and felt a sharp poke in the back of my head. In response, I made a quick flinch and whacked myself in the mouth with my parabola—quite an effective nest defense. These terns were not nearly as aggressive and Mike made a nice recording as I approached the nest unscathed.
Arctic Tern
Adult Arctic Tern. Photo by Gerrit Vyn

In the early evening we arrived at a site called Pilgrim Hot Springs. Once serving as an orphanage for native children whose parents were victims of early epidemics, it is now an eerie relic withering away in a remote corner of Alaska. It is also the site of a number of hot springs. These hot springs warm the surrounding tundra and marshy sloughs enough to permit the growth of some larger trees, in this case, large stands of balsam poplar. We worked there throughout the night and found the density of passerines to be rather unique for this part of Alaska. The poplars rang with the voices of Gray-cheeked Thrush, Varied Thrush, American Robin, Yellow Warbler, and Northern Waterthrush. In one stand we found the nest of a Great Horned Owl and saw the ghostly pale adult (they are often very pale in the north), attending to one large chick. We also made good recordings of two of the target species for our trip, Rusty Blackbird, a species whose numbers are declining precipitously over most of its range, and Greater Scaup.
Abandoned Orphanage
The orphanage at Pilgrim Hot Springs. Photo by Mike Andersen
Orphanage Outbuildings
Orphanage outbuildings and poplar stands. Photo by Mike Andersen

By early morning the rain had set in again and we made our way back to Nome for a big breakfast and warm beds.
Near Pilgrim Hot Springs
Mike (left) and Gerrit stopping to look at louseworts on the drive to Pilgrim Hot Springs. Photo by Gerrit Vyn

June 3: A chorus of loons

We worked through the night again last night near the small community of Council, east of Nome. We returned to a spot that we located on our first day in the area with the hope of recording the display flights of Whimbrel. Instead, we ended up focusing our attention on a pair of Red-throated Loons.
Red-throated Loon. Photo by Gerrit Vyn

Red-throated Loons were frustratingly difficult birds for us to record last year in northern Alaska. We heard them often, as we have here in Nome, but they vocalize unpredictably and are often disrupted from their natural behavior when they know humans are close by. When they do vocalize, their calls carry a long way, so you’re always hearing them but rarely close enough to record. Despite many efforts last year, we returned to New York with only one good recording of their most common vocalization, the wail call.

Of their many vocalizations, the plesiosaur call has been the most elusive to capture and the one we have most coveted. It is commonly given in chorus by groups or pairs of birds and often sparks other groups from neighboring ponds to call as well. The call itself is rather raucous and unmelodic, unlike the haunting calls of Common Loons that many are familiar with. Nevertheless, it is a dramatic piece of the Arctic soundscape worldwide and one we’ve been hoping to capture.

When we first found the pair of loons last night it was clear they were on their nesting pond. From a distance we watched as they swam in unison, performing ritualized postures in mirror image of one another. At one point the male took off to do a territorial flight over the surrounding tundra and we knew we had a good chance to get set up at the pond when the female joined him in flight. We quickly got our gear together, moved to separate spots around the pond, deployed our microphones, and hid beneath camouflage cloth awaiting their return. Having done it before, I knew we could be in for a long cold night with no results, but felt hopeful that we might finally get lucky—and we did. The pair returned and within an hour they erupted in to a chorus of wail and plesiosaur calls. Over the next several hours they repeated the chorus several times, once as they attempted to drive an invading Red-throated Loon from their pond.

At night’s end we snuck off and made our way back to the truck. We cranked up the heater and headed toward Nome as a cold front and rain moved in. We made one quick stop to inspect a nest we had spied yesterday on our drive to Council. Upon approach, two Gyrfalcons flapped away silently.
Caribou on the Move
Caribou are on the move! Photo by Gerrit Vyn

May 31-June 2: Active by night

It’s currently 4:00 P.M. and we’ve been sleeping since about 9:00 this morning. We’ve been getting ourselves onto more of a nocturnal schedule since the birds are most active from the evening hours until morning. The weather conditions are generally calmer as well, making recording easier to accomplish. We’ve also been doing some pretty tough overland foot travel the last few days and decided it was time to get a good long rest.

The weather has been spectacular the last few days with the exception of several hours two nights ago when a line of showers passed through. The timing was perfect because we had decided to get into our sleeping bags on one of the ridge tops around 2:00 A.M. to sleep for a few hours. Needless to say, we got a little wet. But sleeping out in the open is such a nice feeling, and is something we won’t have the chance to do that often once the mosquitoes come out in force.

Speaking of mosquitoes, they have arrived. During the last few calm, warm days the first hatch of large, slow-moving mosquitoes made their appearance. Luckily, they are nothing compared to the swarms of smaller quick-to-bite mosquitoes that will appear later in the trip. They are only a mild nuisance from time to time and easy to swat.
Yep, it's flat.
Yep, it's flat. Photo by Mike Andersen

Recording thus far, despite the great weather, has been a challenge. We have gotten some great recordings but have really had to work for them. The last few days we’ve hiked through many miles of extremely dense willow thicket, through soggy tussock tundra, and up many hills, still in search of a Gyrfalcon nest. Yesterday, I saw one fly off a ledge as we approached but it never returned. Luckily, we did find a pair of Rough-legged Hawks nesting nearby and got some good recordings of them. We’ve also had bad timing with noises (cars, planes, gunshots, hordes of noisy sandpipers, etc.) interfering with good recording opportunities (Greater Scaup, Red-breasted Merganser, Common Eider, etc.). We’re hoping we’ll have some better luck, as that is what it boils down to, over the remainder of our time in Nome.
Coastal Lagoon
Coastal lagoon. Photo by Mike Andersen

Last night, after several days of working in the mountains, we spent all night working the lagoons east of town along the coast. It was a beautiful crisp night with the sun dipping beneath the horizon from about 2:00 to 5:00 A.M., leaving a reddened sky of wispy clouds for most of that time. The lagoons, as well as the Bering Sea, were as still as glass and the calls of kittiwakes and the melancholy whistles of Black Scoters could be heard drifting in from the sea. In one large lagoon, several hundred Tundra Swans were socializing and feeding, waiting for inland water bodies to thaw before traveling to their historic breeding lakes. We crept close on hands and knees, staining our pants blue with squashed crowberries, to the edge of the lagoon and placed our microphones. After we crept off, we recorded the sounds of these birds as pairs triumphantly greeted each other from time to time on the cold still water.
Recording Tundra Swans
Recording Tundra Swans. Photo by Mike Andersen

May 30: Looking for Gyrfalcons and finding knots

We’re back in again well after midnight and looking forward to some sleep. We just inhaled a pizza with blurry eyes, windblown faces, and tired legs. We had another great day but little to show for it as far as recordings go. It was a warm sunny day but the wind was just a bit too much. Rather than fight it we spent a good portion of the day climbing up to potential raptor nesting cliffs looking for Gyrfalcons. We made several long treks up small mountains to find amazing views over the expansive landscape but found no active nests. We’re still optimistic that we’ll find one, though. Both Willow and Rock ptarmigan, Gyrfalcons’ staple prey during the breeding season, appear to be in good numbers. One bright spot in our search was locating an additional pair of breeding Red Knots that we will work on recording on a calmer day (or night!).

Male Rock Ptargmigan
Male ptarmigans, like this Rock Ptarmigan, are frequently seen at roadside. Photo by Gerrit Vyn

We did find one other outstanding bird today, a beautiful male Lesser Sand-Plover. This species is an Asian breeder that rarely makes forays into western Alaska. It was quite a surprise to find this russet-breasted beautiful little plover running around the coastal mudflats at Safety Sound.

Search for Gyrfalcon nests
Searching the mountaintops for Gyrfalcon nests. Photo by Mike Andersen

May 29: Our first full day in the field

We had a long productive day in the field today. It’s now about midnight and we’re both ready for a good sleep after a day of hiking on the tundra.We spent most of the morning northwest of Nome hiking a mountain ridge in search of Red Knot—a sparsely distributed and poorly known breeding bird in Alaska. Working on a tip we received by a chance encounter on the airplane yesterday, we were directed right to a patch of tundra where the birds are known to nest. As is often the case with local breeders, the patch of habitat is not that different from the rest, and this patch of tundra was no exception. Nevertheless we split up early and began our search across the rolling, lichen-covered, rocky tundra.

As a thick fog belt rolled in from the nearby mountains, Rock Sandpipers and Western Sandpipers began to vocalize. They both turned out to be common, and we managed some good recordings of both species. While watching one of the Rock Sandpipers a few miles in, I was thrilled to see a Red Knot quietly shuffling through the rocks near the Rock Sandpiper. Its behavior led me to believe it was trying to draw me away from a nest so I marked the spot where I saw him by building a small stone cairn and walked off some distance to watch. Over the course of the next few hours another appeared and I witnessed several song flights of this species. It did not sing as much as many other shorebirds do at this time of year but I managed to make a few decent recordings.

By this time the fog was moving out and the warm sunshine was making its way through to the ground. Unfortunately the wind kicked up a bit too, which made recording more of a challenge. We’ll be returning another day to try to improve on the recordings.

Whimbrel are in full courtship. Some are already incubating eggs. Photo by Gerrit Vyn

In the afternoon we hiked an area 70 miles north of town near the end of the Kougarok Road. Again we were in a seemingly endless sea of tundra. The hilltop we were targeting is a well-known breeding site of Bristle-thighed Curlews, a bird that is known to undertake one of the longest nonstop migration flights of any species in the world (more than 10,000 miles without stopping).

We hiked a long way up a hill of high tussocks to a wide ridgeline where we soon spotted the curlews gliding and singing their whistled song over the tundra. We spent several hours walking around the area and made many good recordings. Mike got one particularly good recording of the birds’ song which was the vocalization we were most after. We saw many other birds busily staking out their nesting territories on the ridge: Bar-tailed Godwits, Whimbrel, American Golden-Plover, and Long-tailed Jaegers. Mike had the oddest sighting of the trip so far when four Buff-breasted Sandpipers landed on the tundra and began to call right in front of him. These birds are far from their closest known breeding grounds along the arctic coast of northern Alaska and east from there.

Bluethroats, which winter in southeast Asia, have been common in the Nome area. Photo by Gerrit Vyn

Other highlights of the day included the first singing Bluethroats and Northern Wheatears of the trip, many more musk ox including one group of 30 animals with two small calves, and finding several active Golden Eagle nests.

Now some sleep…

Recording Bristle-thighed Curlew
Mike recording Bristle-thighed Curlew. Photo by Gerrit Vyn

May 28: Fly from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska

This morning we flew to the small town of Nome in western Alaska, known to many as the finish line for the Iditarod sled dog race. Here we hope to record several bird species with limited breeding distributions in Alaska, including Bristle-thighed Curlew, Pacific Golden-Plover, Red-throated Pipit, and Aleutian Tern. We picked up our rental vehicle, a beat up old suburban with no windshield wipers and a stereo with a mind of its own, and checked into the Nugget Inn where we’ll spend a few nights.

The Nugget Inn
Mike getting out of our vehicle at the Nugget Inn. Photo by Gerrit Vyn

On arrival, the landscape was cloud covered and cool but by night’s end we had a good stretch of sunshine out on the tundra. The temperature stayed in the mid 40s with patches of snow still present in protected willow draws and in the hills. For most of the day we scouted areas along the Council Road which runs about 70 miles to the east of town. It follows the coast of the Bering Sea for a while before cutting inland and crossing some small rolling mountains. At road’s end the road enters the only boreal forest found on the Nome road system.

East of Nome
Rolling hills east of Nome along the Council Road. Photo by Gerrit Vyn

We arrived at a great time of year—some birds are in the early stages of courtship, some already on eggs, and many still migrating through the area to more northerly breeding grounds. Along the coastline thousands of migrating Red-throated Loons and lesser numbers of Pacific Loons streamed by, as did flocks of Brant, scoters, Sabine’s Gulls, and Pomarine Jaegers. We saw many Harlequin Ducks and Red-breasted Mergansers along the coast as well as upstream in rivers along the road. Eiders were present too, with the v-nigrum race of Common Eider being rather common and a pair each of Steller’s and King eiders heading north along the coast. Inland, many passerines were singing, the most prominent being Gray-cheeked Thrush, Northern Waterthrush, Golden-crowned Sparrow, and Fox Sparrow. Shorebirds were busy too. We found many singing Whimbrel, Pacific Golden-Plovers, Western Sandpipers, and Semipalmated Sandpipers on the tundra. The oddest bird of the day was a male Blue-winged Teal, thousands of miles beyond its nearest breeding area in eastern interior Alaska. We also saw two grizzly bears, one loping blonde adult at rather close range, and a small band of musk ox.

Musk ox feeding in the willows. Photo by Gerrit Vyn

As I write this, we’ve got a great mess of gear piled around our small room which we’ll get organized in the morning, and a Red-throated Loon is giving its plaintive wail call just outside our window on the edge of the Bering Sea.

May 27: Ithaca, New York to Anchorage, Alaska

Today, after many months of planning and several hectic days of packing gear and ironing out final logistical details, Mike Andersen and I departed Ithaca and traveled to Anchorage, Alaska. We both slept through most of our flights, waking just in time to see the last of the vast snaking glaciers below as we descended toward Anchorage.

Our audio-recording expedition this year will take us to many areas of the state.
Last year we concentrated our efforts along the arctic coastal plain between Barrow and Deadhorse and the interior boreal forests along the Dalton Highway. This year we will jump around a bit more, trying to locate and record more isolated or hard-to-find breeding species. We’ll be working on the tundra and hills of the Seward Peninsula, in seabird colonies off of Sitka and the Alaska Peninsula, in the mountains of the Brook’s Range and Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and in several locations on the coastal plain tundra of northern Alaska. We’ll do our best to stay in touch and share a few of our experiences along the way.